Dissenting views in the British armed forces

[Friday]

This is an important article, and deserves to be widely read. Participants have taken a risk in responding to a survey on life in the forces. My first response is that the level of opposition to Britian’s wars in the Middle East, combined with the new technologies available, and the widespread lack of morale have made it possible for so many to speak out.

Troops argue Iraq is ‘unwinnable’
By Paul Wood
BBC News defence correspondent

A belief that Iraq is unwinnable, fears that Afghanistan could go the same way and an overwhelming feeling that the government has not looked after the Armed Forces properly in return for the sacrifices they make.

That is what emerges from the answers given by hundreds of servicemen and women in response to the online questionnaire we posted here a few weeks ago. We received nearly 2,000 replies to a set of questions about life in the forces.

Those who contacted us did so in defiance of Queen’s Regulations. It is forbidden for members of the Armed Forces to talk to the media unsupervised.

There is a good constitutional reason for that. Britain does not have the kind of politicised military which intervenes to change policy, or governments. But many servicemen and women are deeply worried and so are speaking out.

Behind many of the problems lies the stretch – some would say overstretch – in our forces.

“We don’t have the resources to do the tasks we’re asked to do,” said one RAF man who spoke to us. “We are at complete saturation point. If anything else happens, we won’t be able to deal with it.”

He was only echoing warnings given by senior officers, such as the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt.

The government said, however, it was doing all it could to pay back service personnel for their efforts.

Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said: “I don’t believe or accept that we have broken the covenant with our service personnel.

“I spoke to General Dannatt before he left for Afghanistan and he agreed with me on this. There are issues that we have got to address and we are addressing.

“We are trying to do as much as we can to pay back our service personnel for that that they do for us – that is massively appreciated.”

Iraq has undoubtedly put a strain on the British military. Many of those who responded to our questionnaire – admittedly a self-selecting group – thought Iraq was unwinnable and that British Forces should not be there.

“It’s getting hotter and hotter. And more soldiers wouldn’t help. It’s just more target,” said one veteran of Basra.

Another wrote: “I am about to do my second tour of Basra. I don’t think the public are aware how bad it actually is out there, getting rocket attacks every day and no let up.”

One Parachute Regiment officer reflected the anguish that Iraq has caused within the services.

“Iraq is a lost cause,” he said. “I don’t think we can’t achieve much. It is a difficult moral dilemma though. We owe it to the Iraqi people to stabilise their country and secure it for them. But at the same time it is unwinnable.”

By contrast, most of the serving personnel who contacted us did think British forces should be in Afghanistan, although they worried about whether this conflict, too, was winnable.

“Iraq and Afghanistan are two completely different theatres,” said one lieutenant who spoke to us at length. “The main difference is that people in Afghanistan actually want us there. Unlike Iraq.

“But the longer it takes [for us] to improve the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan, the worse that situation will get,” he added.

One soldier agreed: “We can win in Afghanistan and are winning. We just don’t have enough resources to cover all the ground.”

Again, we should stress that this was a self-selecting group. But these opinions reflect those you hear at bases here, and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the overwhelming view said they felt the military covenant was not being honoured. This is originally an army concept, but it applies to all the forces. It is the deal done between the soldier and the nation: look after me, and I will risk my life for you.

Most of those who answered our questionnaire thought the government was not honouring its side of the bargain.

‘Shocking morale’

“The forces are under funded, personnel are leaving in their droves,” said one man in response to our questionnaire.

One soldier wrote: “We are under funded by a tight-fisted government who wants to fight wars on the cheap. Young soldiers are dying on a regular basis for less than £50 a day, and yet we are supposed to be grateful for the £2,300 ‘bonus’ we receive at the end of a tour.

“Compare that against an MP’s expenses and you’ll see why good soldiers are leaving in droves.”

Another said: “Life in the armed forces? All you currently read on this matter is true.

“Shocking morale, little done to reduce constant overseas deployments, whilst cutting back our numbers in the middle of two major conflicts, [military] hospitals closed, inquests taking four years, shocking quality of accommodation, poor pay, and 30-minute phone calls a week from theatre.

“Prisoners get the same and we pay tax.”

One sailor, just back from Iraq after a six-month tour, wrote: “The armed forces have been cut back year on year. Although the workload has increased enormously, I have never known such a state of apathy and low morale within the armed forces as there is today.

“I, like many, am just counting the days until I qualify for my pension and can leave the demoralised and destitute armed forces.”

‘Close to failing’

There were other concerns, in particular the number of casualties and how they are treated back in the UK.

One serviceman wrote: “For every fatality, there are many ‘broken’ soldiers who have suffered hideous injuries. If the sheer scale of those injuries was made common knowledge, the public would be shocked and disgusted.”

He went on: “The government prefers to evade that issue. The armed forces are being asked to provide more and more with less and less. The system is extremely close to failing.”

Much of what was said to us, in response to our questionnaire is also being said by senior officers, occasionally in public.

Members of the armed forces are not saying they will not go to Iraq and Afghanistan, that they will not do their duty.

But this group who contacted us, and many others, are warning that because the armed forces are so reliable, it is easy to take them for granted.

The overwhelming view is that the armed forces cannot go on like this indefinitely.

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